Fuckin' Fans, Dirty Talk: Paul Newman's Slap Shot at BAM

Fuckin' Fans, Dirty Talk: Paul Newman's Slap Shot at BAM

Slap Shot, George Roy Hill's 1977 comedy about a thuggish minor-league hockey team, will screen tonight in a new print as part of BAMcinématek's Paul Newman memorial series. As Nick Pinkerton noted last week, if the movie "isn't as rollickingly, raunchily funny as it thinks, Newman's middle-aged player-coach, hustling to keep ahold of his youthful heedlessness, is one of his most felt roles." And aside from Newman's deliciously vulgar line-readings ("the fuckin' fans are calling in with dirty talk") Slap Shot also has the virtue of looking newly relevant. Ostensibly a conventional jockstrapper, the movie scans today as an embittered portrait of blue-collar America besieged by yet another economic downturn.

Set in a fictional Northeastern industrial burg (the film was shot on location in Pennsylvania and upstate New York), Slap Shot opens with news that a local mill is shutting down, generating speculation that the losing Charlestown Chiefs franchise is in jeopardy. Determined to make the team saleable to a new owner, preferably in a sunnier clime, Newman teaches his players to start fights. Sparked by the mid-season addition of three Canadian brothers--angel-faced bruisers in identical Coke-bottle hornrims--the Chiefs begin to win ugly, reviving their Joe Six-Pack fan base. When a clean-cut Princeton-bred player (the young Michael Ontkean) refuses to play dirty, his coach explains that "they don't want you to score goals, they want blood."

Which goes to the heart of how professional sports have traditionally functioned in our culture, particularly during tough times. Slap Shot, under Hill's typically languid direction, is no Bad News Bears. But thirty-plus years after its release, the film has more to offer than Newman, giving us a welcome cynical look at how the little guy in America always seems to take the hardest knocks.--Benjamin Strong

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